Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 16

The Witch Hunt

David awoke next morning to a world which had been suddenly recreated. That Katrine should return his love upheaved for him the foundations of the globe. Nothing could be the same again, in face of this tremendous fact; his troubles lifted like mist in the sun, for what ill could befall one whom Katrine loved? Even the incubus of sin in Woodilee seemed to lighten, for evil could not prevail with such a lady walking the earth. He felt that he had come anew into the land of the living, and every fibre of him sang praises.

His new fortitude was proof against even the news which Reiverslaw brought. That worthy arrived at the manse with a long face. The coven in Woodilee had held their Hallowmass rites, and to the best of his belief they had held them in the kirk.. .. He had lost sight of Chasehope early in the evening, and had gone to Mirehope on a false scent. . . . They had been watching the manse and knew that the minister was from home. . . . He had hastened up the road seeking David and had been overtaken by the fog, and when he got back to Woodilee the place had been under a blanket. Doubtless the Devil was protecting his own. . . . There had been no cruisies lit in the cottages, even of those who were known to be of the coven. But, as luck would have it, he had entered the kirkyard and had seen a speck of light in the kirk. The door was locked, but he was clear that there were folk inside. . . . He had roused Robb to get the key, but no key was to be found. He had gone for Amos Ritchie to break open the door, and though Amos had refused to stir, he had borrowed a mell and a crowbar; but when he reached the kirk, the place was quiet and dark again, and the keys were lying on Robb’s doorstep.

The man was really shocked, for this was a superfluity of naughtiness for which he had not been prepared. To David, with a memory of his Kirk Session, the sacrilege was less of a surprise; if men and women could defy their Maker by sitting at the communion table and by taking in vain the Gospel words, they would not shrink from polluting God’s house. But it proved the boldness and security of the evildoers. It was Chasehope of whom he chiefly thought, Chasehope, that darling of the Presbytery, the ally of the Kirk in hunting down malignants, the one in all the parish who flaunted most his piety. The man grew in stature as he contemplated him. Here was no feeble sinner, but a very provost in the craft, who turned all the uses of religion to his foul purposes. And at the thought David, fired by his new happiness, almost rejoiced; he was fighting not with human frailty, but against a resolute will to damnation.

That day he received a summons to attend on the following Monday upon a special meeting of Presbytery at Kirk Aller for a preliminary examination. The thing seemed to him now to have lost all terrors. He had no anger against his accusers, for were they not dull old men who knew nothing of the ravishing world that had been opened to him? He would be very meek with them, for he pitied them; if they chose to censure and degrade him he would bear it patiently. His extreme happiness made him feel more than ever in the hands of the Almighty and disposed to walk softly before Him. He had given many hostages to fortune, but he had won something which could never be taken away. Thankful and humble he felt, in love with life and with all humanity, and notably less bellicose. His path of duty was clear, but he would not court antagonisms. He owed much to the less fortunate, he who daily met Katrine in the greenwood or on the hill in the soft noons which make a false summer at autumn’s end.

So on the Sabbath he preached a sermon which was long spoken of in Woodilee. He discoursed of charity — a topic not popular in the Kirk, and commonly left to such as Mr. Fordyce who were afflicted with ill-health. For a young minister, his face ruddy with the hill winds and his figure as well set up as a dragoon’s, to expand on such a matter seemed a mere waste of precious time, when so many more marrowy subjects lay to his hand. Yet there was that in David’s earnestness which impressed his audience almost as much as if his sermon had been on death and judgment. He had a new hearer. A man sat beneath the pulpit whose eyes never moved from the minister’s face — a mere lath of a man, thin to emaciation, with a narrow head and a much-freckled face, a ragged beard, and eyes with red lights in them like a ferret’s. David noticed that, as the kirk emptied, the others seemed to shun the newcomer’s proximity. As he moved to the door, there was a drift away from him, like sheep from a collie.

That night Isobel gave him news of the stranger.

“The pricker has come,” she announced in a solemn voice. “He arrived yestreen and is bidin’ wi’ Chasehope. Yon was him in the kirk the day, yon body wi’ the fernietickles [freckles] and the bleary een. They ca’ him Kincaid — John Kincaid, and he’s frae Newbottle way — anither than a guid ane, if a’ tales be true. Eh, sir, this is a shamefu’ business, routin’ out puir auld bodies and garrin’ them gie daft answers, and syne delatin’ them on what they ca’ their confessions. There’s naebody safe that hasna a power o’ keepin’ a calm sough and giein’ back word for word. I wadna be feared mysel’ o’ ony Kincaid, but if you was to cross-speir me, Mr. David, wi’ your searchin’ een, I daresay ye could get me to own up to ony daftness ye liked to pit to me. I dinna aud wi’ this prickin’ o’ witches, and I can find nae warrant for it in the Word. Belike it’s some device that thae weary Embro lawyers hae howkit out o’ their rotten herts.”

As he rode to Kirk Aller next day David reflected much on Isobel’s tale. Who could have brought a pricker to Woodilee — and lodged him with Chasehope? Was it the work of the Presbytery? Was it a plan to cover up the major sin by hunting out minor sinners? He knew of the pricker class as of the worst repute, knaves and quacks who stirred up popular superstition and were responsible often for hideous brutalities. Even the Law looked askance at them. He did not like to be absent from his parish when such a creature was let loose in it.

The examination of the Presbytery lasted for two days. He had gone lightly to face it, but he found it a formidable affair. Business began with long prayers and prelections delivered to his address. The Moderator constituted the court with the formality of a Lord of Session and the solemnity of a minister fencing the tables at the Communion season. He announced that the matter for examination would be limited to the charge of assisting the Kirk’s enemies. The prior charge of witchcraft preferred by the minister of Woodilee against certain parishioners would be relegated to a later day, since the Privy Council on his motion had issued a commission to inquire into the machinations of the Devil in that parish, naming as its members himself, the minister of Bold, and the Laird of Killiequhair. This, thought David, explains the pricker. Mr. Muirhead added that he had moved in the matter at the request of a godly elder, known to all of them, Ephraim Caird in Chasehope.

The court was composed of the two score of ministers in the Presbytery, and only Mr. Fordyce was lacking, for he was once more stretched upon a bed of sickness. As it was only a preliminary examination there were no witnesses, since the object was to give the accused a chance of stating his case and so narrow the issue to be ultimately tried. The Moderator read aloud sworn statements, to which no names were appended, the names, as he explained, being reserved for the time when the complainants should appear in person. To David it was obvious that, though one of the statements was by a soldier of Leslie’s, the others must come from members of his own flock. There was nothing new in the details — the finding of the cavalier’s clothes in the manse outhouse, the interference with the troopers at the Greenshiel, and certain words spoken on that occasion; but what surprised him was the fact that the avowal which he had made to Mr. Muirhead was not set down. It was clear from the Moderator’s manner that he proposed to forget that episode, and was willing that David should deny any and every charge in the libel. Indeed he seemed to encourage such a course. “The Court will be glad,” he said, “if our young brother can blow away these most momentous charges. Everybody kens that among wars and rumours of war daft tales spring up, and that things are done in the confusion without ill intent, whilk are not defensible. It is the desire of all his brethren that Mr. Sempill shall go forth assoilzied of these charges, which are maybe to be explained by the carelessness of a domestic and the thoughtless words of a young man carried for a moment out of himself, and no doubt incorrectly reported.”

But David did not take the hint. He avowed frankly that he had entertained a fugitive of Montrose at the manse, and had assisted him to escape. Asked for the name, he refused to give it. He also confessed that he had endeavoured too late to protect an Irishwoman at the Greenshiel, and had spoken with candour his opinion of her persecutors.

“It is alleged,” said a heavy man, the minister of Westerton, “that you promised these poor soldiers eternal torments, and them but doing their Christian duty, and that you mocked at them as inferior in valour to the reprobate Montrose.”

“No doubt a false report, Mr. Archibald,” said the Moderator. “It’s like that the worthy sodgers had been looking at the wine when it was red and werena that clear in their understanding.”

“I cannot charge my memory with what I said,” David replied, “but it may well have been as set forth. That, at any rate, was what I had it in my mind to say.”

A sigh of reprobation rose from the Court, and the Moderator shook his head. He honestly desired to give David a way of escape, not from any love he bore him, but for the credit of the Kirk. This, too, was the general feeling. As David looked over the ranks of his judges he saw stupidity, arrogance, confusion, writ on many faces, but on none malevolence. This Court would deal mildly with him, if he gave them the chance, for the sake of the repute of their common calling.

He laboured to be meek, but no answers, however soft, could disguise the fact that he and they looked upon things from standpoints eternally conflicting. It was suggested to him again and again that the stranger at the manse had been entertained by his housekeeper, an ignorant woman and therefore the less reprehensible, for had she not rolled up the clothes and hidden them in the byre, as the accused admitted? But David refused to shelter behind any misapprehension. He had admitted the man, what was done had been by his orders, and — this in reply to a question by the minister of Bold — what he had done he was prepared to do again. The close of the first day’s sederunt found the charges proven in substance by the admission, indeed by the vehement proclamation, of the accused.

For David there was no share in the clerical supper at the Cross Keys. He lay at a smaller inn in the Northgate, a resort of drovers and packmen, and spent such time as remained before bed in walking by Aller side, under the little hill crowned with kirk and castle, watching the salmon leap as they passed the cauld. Next day, the facts having been ascertained by admission, the Presbytery debated on principles, David was summoned to justify his conduct, and — with a prayer that he might be given humility — complied. With every sentence he rode deeper into the disapprobation of his hearers. He claimed that the cause of the helpless, however guilty, was the cause of Christ. Should a starving enemy be turned from the door, even though it was an enemy of the Kirk’s?

“Man, can ye no distinguish?” thundered the minister of Bold. “Have you no logic in your head?” And he quoted a dozen savage Scriptural precedents against him.

Was the Court, David asked, in a time of civil strife and war between brothers, clear that the precedent of Israel and the tribes of Canaan held? The men they fought against were professing Christians, indeed professed Presbyterians. Granted that they were in error, was it an error which could only be extirpated in blood?

It was an unlucky plea, for it brought forth a frenzied torrent of denials. The appeal of his opponents was not only to Scripture, but to the decisions of the Kirk. Was there not here, one cried, that rebellion which was as the sin of witchcraft? What became, cried another, of the deference which a young man was bound to show to the authority of his fathers in God? “Are we to be like Rehoboam, who hearkened to callow and inexperienced youth, and not to those elders who partook of the wisdom of his father Solomon?”

Presently David was silent. He remembered that meekness became him, and he had a sharp sense of the futility of argument. Respectfully he bowed his head to the blast, while a dozen of his brethren delivered extracts from their recent sermons. The Moderator confirmed the sense of the Court.

“Our young brother is lamentably estranged from Christ,” he said in a voice which was charged with regret as well as with indignation. “He is like the Church of Laodicea, of whom it was written, ‘Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ I tell you, sir, he that is not with us is against us, and that in the day of the Lord’s judgments there can be no halting between two opinions. It is the duty of the Kirk to follow His plain commandment and to rest not till the evil thing be utterly destroyed from our midst, even as Barak pursued after the chariots to Harosheth of the Gentiles, and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword, and not a man was left. You are besotted in your error, and till you repent you have no part in the commonwealth of Israel, for you are like Lot and have taken up your dwelling in the Cities of the Plain and have pitched your tents towards Sodom, whereas the Kirk, like Abram, dwelleth in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and hath built there an altar to the Lord.”

The Presbytery refrained from any judgment on the case, that being deferred till a later meeting, when, if necessary, evidence could be called; but in view of the fact that the minister of Woodilee had acknowledged his fault and exhibited contumacy thereanent, he was by a unanimous decision suspended from occupying the pulpit and dispensing the Sacrament in the parish, and from all other pastoral rights and duties. As the winter was close on hand, when evil roads lessened church attendance, it was agreed that spiritual needs would be met if Mr. Fordyce were enjoined to conduct public worship alternately in Woodilee and Cauldshaw.

David rode home in a frame of mind which was neither sad nor glad. He felt no shame at his suspension, but he recognized with a pang the breadth of the gulf which separated him from his brethren, and the ruin of those high hopes with which a year ago he had begun his ministry. He realized that he was but a poor ecclesiastic, for he could not feel that loyalty which others felt to a Kirk which was mainly the work of men’s hands. “They have lamentably perverted reason and justice”— he remembered Montrose’s words; and yet most of them were honest men and pious men, and maybe their good on a wide computation was greater than their ill. It was his unhappy portion to have encountered the ill. But if the Kirk cast him off he had Christ —“Other sheep I have which are not of this fold,” was Christ’s word — and he must follow with all humility the light that was given to him. When the main trial came on he would not relent in his denunciation of the Wood, and his loss would be well repaid if, like Samson, he could bring down with him the pillars of Gaza. . . . He consoled himself thus, but he knew in his heart that he had no need of consolation, for the thought of Katrine was there like a live coal.

He came to the manse in the gloaming, to find Isobel waiting for him in the road.

“Heaven save us a’!” she said, “but there’s an awfu’ thing come to Woodilee. They’ve prickit a witch, and it’s nane ither than puir Bessie Todd o’ the Mains. Guid kens what they did till her, but a’ nicht the clachan rang wi’ her skirlin’. The pricker fand the Deil’s mark on her back, and stappit a preen [pin] intil it up to the heid and nae bluid came, and they burnt her feet wi’ lichtit candles, and hung her by the thumbs frae the cupples till they garred her own to awesome deeds. I canna believe it, the puir doited body, but if the ae half is true she’s far ben wi’ the Adversary, and oh, sir, it’s fearsome to think what wickedness can be hidden in the hert o’ man. She said the Deil gie’d her a new name, whilk she wadna tell, and she owned that ilka Lord’s Day, when she sat under ye on the pu’pit stair, she prayed to him —‘Our Father, which wert in Heaven.’ But whatever her faut, it canna be richt the way they guidit her, lickin’ her wi’ a bull’s pizzle and burnin’ the gums o’ her till she yammers like a bitted powny. If she maun dee, let death come quick. For the Lord’s sake, Mr. David, get her down to the Kirk Aller tolbooth, for the Shirra is kinder than yon red brock [badger] o’ a pricker. The verra sicht o’ his wild een sends a grue to my banes — and Chasehope standin’ by him and speakin’ saft and wicked, and smilin’ like a cat wi’ a mouse.”

David’s heart sickened with disgust. Chasehope had turned the tables on him; he had diverted suspicion from himself by sacrificing a half-witted woman. And yet this Bessie Todd had been a member of the coven — he had seen her grey locks flying in the Wood. Chasehope was presiding at the examination and torture; he would no doubt take good care that no word of the truth came out in her delirium. And Isobel, who had denied with violence his own charges against this very woman, seemed to believe her confession. She was revolted by the cruelty, but convinced of the sin. That would no doubt be the feeling of the parish, for who could disbelieve avowals which must send the avower to a shameful death?

“Where is the wretched woman?” he asked.

“They have her lockit up in Peter Pennecuik’s girnel. . . . They’ve gotten a’ they want, and they say that the Shirra has been sent for to carry her to the Kirk Aller steeple, whaur they confine the warlocks. . . . They’re in the girnel now, and the feck o’ Woodilee is waitin’ at the door. Will you stop for a bite? . . . ”

David waited only to stable his horse, and to buckle on the sword with which he had girt himself on the night of the second Beltane. He ran so fast towards the clachan that he was at Peter Pennecuik’s house before Isobel, labouring in his wake, had turned the corner of the manse loan.

The night had fallen dark, but from inside the girnel came a flicker of light. David had once before seen a witch hunt — in Liberton, as a boy — and then there had been a furious and noisy crowd surging round the change-house where the accused was imprisoned. But the Woodilee mob was not like that. It was silent, almost furtive. The granary was a large building, for it had once been the barn of the Mains farm; it was built of unmasoned stone cemented with mud, and had a deep roof of thatch; through the chinks of both walls and roof came thin streams of light. The spectators did not press on the door, but stood in groups some paces back, as hushed as in the kirk of a Sabbath. The light was too dim for David to recognize faces, but he saw that one man stood at the door as keeper, and knew him for Reiverslaw.

He had been drinking, and greeted the minister hilariously.

“We’ve gotten ane o’ the coven,” he whispered thickly, “ane you saw yoursel’ in the Wud.”

“But Chasehope is among her accusers.”

“I ken, but we’ll get that kail-worm too, in the Lord’s guid time. At ony rate, we’re sure o’ ane o’ the deevils.”

“You fool, this is a trick of Chasehope’s to divert attention from the Wood. This miserable woman has only confessed bairnly faults, and on that he’ll ride off scot free.”

The truth penetrated slowly to Reiverslaw’s foggy brain, but in the end he saw it.

“God’s curse on him, but ye’re maybe right. What are ye ettlin’, sir? Gie me the word and I’ll come in by and wring the truth out o’ him wi’ my hands at his gutsy thrapple.”

“Bide where you are, and let none leave this place unless I bid you. I will see if I can get justice done.”

But when Reiverslaw opened the heavy door to let him enter, the first glance told David that he had come too late. The great empty place had straw piled at one end, and on a barrel in the centre a flickering lantern. By it, on an upturned barrow, sat the pricker, a paper in his hand and an inkhorn slung round his neck, his face wearing a smirking satisfaction. He had once been a schoolmaster, and at this moment he looked the part again. Behind him, sitting on kegs or squatted on the floor, were a dozen men — Chasehope at his elbow, Mirehope, the miller, Peter Pennecuik, Nether Fennan — David saw only a few faces in the dim light. Daft Gibbie by some means or other had gained entrance, and had perched himself in a crevice of the wall, whence his long shoeless legs dangled over Chasehope’s head.

On the straw behind the lantern lay the witch. Her grey hair had fallen round her naked shoulders, and that and a ragged petticoat seemed her only covering. Even in the mirk David could see the cruel consequences of torture. Her feet were black and swollen, and her hands, with dislocated thumbs, were splayed out on the straw as if they were no longer parts of her body. Her white face was hideously discoloured in patches, and her mouth was wide open, as if there were a tormenting fire within. She seemed delirious, for she gabbled and slavered uncouthly to herself, scarcely moving her lips. Every now and then her thin breast was shaken with a frenzied shivering.

At the sight something gave in David’s head. He felt the blood rush above his eyebrows, and a choking at the back of his throat. Always a hater of cruelty, he had rarely seen its more monstrous forms, and the spectacle of this broken woman awoke in him a fury of remonstrance. He strode to the lantern and looked down on her, and then turned away, for he sickened. He saw the gimlet eyes of the pricker — red like a broody hen’s — and behind him the sullen, secret face of Chasehope.

“What devil’s prank have you been at?” he cried. “Answer me, Ephraim Caird. Who is this mountebank, and what have you done to this unhappy woman?”

“All has been done decently and in order,” said Chasehope. “The Presbytery is resolved to free this parochine of the sin of witchcraft, and this worthy man, who has skill in siccan matters, has been sent to guide us. There is a commission issued frae the Privy Council, as ye may have heard, to try those that are accused, but the first needcessity is to find the witches and exhort them to confession. This woman, Elspeth Todd, is convict out o’ her ain mouth, and we’ve gotten a memorial o’ the ill deeds she owns to. Word has been dispatched to the Shirra, and the morn, nae doot, he’ll send and shift her to Kirk Aller.”

The man spoke smoothly and not discourteously, but David would have preferred oaths and shouting. He put a great restraint on his temper.

“How did you extort the confession? Answer me that. You have tortured her body and driven her demented, and suffering flesh and crazed wits will avow any foolishness.”

“We followed the means sanctioned by ilka presbytery in this land. It’s weel kenned that flesh sell’t to the Deil is no like common flesh, and the evil spirit will no speak without some sort o’ compulsion.”

David snatched the paper from the pricker and held it to the lantern. It was written clearly in a schoolmaster’s hand, and though oddly and elliptically worded, he made out the sum of it. As he read, there was silence in the place, except for the babbling of the woman and the mowing of Daft Gibbie from his perch.

It seemed to him a bedlamite chronicle. The accused confessed that she had been guilty of charming, and had cured a cow on the Mains by taking live trouts from its belly. She had “overlooked” a boy, Hobbie Simson, at Nether Fennan, and he had sickened and lain for three months on his back. She had made a clay figure of one of the ewe-milkers at Mirehope and stuck pins into it, and the girl had suffered from pains and dizziness all summer. She had shot cattle with elf-bolts, and had cursed a field on Windyways by driving round it a team of puddocks. The Devil had trysted with her on a rig of Mirehope’s, and had given her a name which she would not reveal, and on the rig there had been ever since an intractable crop of thistles. Her master visited her in the likeness of a black cat, and she herself had often taken the same likeness, and had travelled the country at night sitting on the crupper of one of the Devil’s mares. By means of the charm of the seven south~flowing streams and the nine rowan berries, she had kept her meal~ark full in the winter famine. She confessed to having ridden John Humbie, a ploughman of Chasehope’s, night after night to a witch~gathering at Charlie’s Moss, so that John was done with weariness the next day and unfit for work. The said John declared that he woke with the cry of “Up horsie” in his ear. At these gatherings she admitted to having baked and eaten the witch-cake — a food made of grey bear and a black toad’s blood, and baked in the light of the moon, and at the eating had sung this spell:

“Some lass maun gang wi’ a kilted sark;
Some priest maun preach in a thackless kirk;
Thread maun be spun for a dead man’s sark;
A’ maun be done ere the sang o’ the lark.”

She admitted that she had taken the pains of childbirth from women — but what women she would not say — and that then the child had been born dead, and had so become a “kain bairn” for the Devil. Last, and most damning, she had between her shoulders the Devil’s secret mark.

Some sentences from the document David read aloud, and in his voice there was bitter scorn. He believed most devoutly in the menace of witchcraft and in a Devil who could take bodily form and divert the course of nature to seduce human souls, but this catalogue of sins seemed to him too childish for credence. It was what any woman crazed with pain might confess in the hope of winning respite. Most of the details he remembered from his boyhood as common talk; the witch-cake rhyme he had sung himself; the charm to fill Bessie’s meal-ark during the winter he knew to be false, for she had nearly died of want, and he had fed her from the manse kitchen. . . . He had seen her in the Wood, and yet there was no mention of the Wood. Chasehope had been present at the torture, and doubtless his fell influence had kept her rhapsody away from the point of danger. The poor soul was guilty, but not of this childishness.

He looked at her as she lay, mindless, racked, dying perhaps, and an awful conviction entered his mind. She was a human sacrifice made by the coven to their master. . . . He had read of such things, he half-remembered tales of them. . . . Perhaps she was a willing victim — he had heard of such — coming forward with a perverted joy to confess her shame. The torture — that would be to stimulate her imagination. Isobel had always said she was weak in her mind. . . . She might have been chosen by lot in the kirk on Hallowmass-e’en. . . . Chasehope was not her inquisitor, but the dark priest who conducted the ritual.

His anger and disgust rose to a fury. He tore the paper into little pieces and flung them in the pricker’s face.

“What doubly damned crime have you committed?” he cried. “You have tortured a wretched weak woman and taken down her ravings for truth. You have maybe killed her, murderer that you be! Your sins cry out to God, and yours above all, Ephraim Caird, whose hands I have myself seen dipped in the blackest witchcraft.”

Chasehope’s face was smiling blandly.

“I kenna what right ye have to meddle, sir,” he said. “The paper ye’ve torn is but a copy. The memorial itsel’ will be in safe hands this nicht. Wad ye set yoursel’ up against the Presbytery and the law o’ the land, you that have been suspended this day, as is weel kenned, frae your rights as minister o’ this parish? Ye’d best gang hame to your bed, sir, and pray that ye may be delivered frae the sin o’ presumption. This woman will bide the nicht in this place under lock and key, till the Shirra sends for her.”

“She will go with me to the manse this night — and, please God, I will nurse her back into life.”

There could be no question of the consternation of the audience — it almost equalled his own. Chasehope alone kept his composure; the others stared in horror and growing anger.

“That will no be permitted,” came from the lowering Mirehope, and “A bonny minister,” cried another, “to file his house wi’ a dirty witch. He maun himsel’ be ower great wi’ the Deil.” The pricker twisted and grinned, and his eyes watched approvingly the spasms of the woman on the straw.

David was carried out of himself, and before he was aware of it had drawn his sword.

“She goes to the manse. I will suffer no let or hindrance in this plain duty. Whoever opposes me will rue it.”

“Wad ye deforce the session?” Mirehope shouted in a voice like a bull and got to his feet. From the idiot on his perch came an unexpected encouragement. “Fine, sir. Fine, my bonny Mr. David,” cried Gibbie. “Stap your sword in his wame. I’ll uphaud ye wi’ my staff, for the puir kimmer was ill-guidit. I couldna sleep a wink a’ nicht for her skellochs.”

A voice broke in on the storm, and David saw that it was the new tenant of Crossbasket.

“Put up your blade, sir,” he said. “There’s no need for fighting among Christian folk. These honest men have been following the light vouchsafed to them, and if there’s blame to be cast it’s on this pricker chiel that comes from I know not where.”

There was something in the quiet tones which fell like oil on yeasty water. David settled back his sword into its sheath, Mirehope sat down again on his keg, Chasehope turned his head to the speaker with the first sign of discomposure he had yet shown.

“Ye’ll forgive me, neighbours,” Mark continued, “since I’m but new come to the parish, but I’ve seen a hantle o’ the world, and I would be wae to see honest men run their heids against a stone wall. The woman may be a’ you say and waur, but it looks as if her handlin’ had been ower sair, and I’m muckle mista’en if she’ll no be a corp ere morning. Consider, friends. — This is no a court constituted by a Privy Council commission; it’s nae mair than a private gathering o’ well-wishers to the Kirk and the Law. In my time I’ve meddled ower much wi’ the Law for my comfort, and I ken something about the jaud. The Law has no cognizance of a pricker or onything like him, and if well-meaning folk under his guiding compass the death of a man or woman that has not been duly tried and sentenced, the Law will uphaud it to be murder, just as muckle as if a caird had cut a throat at a dyke-side. I greatly fear ye’ve brought yourselves into its danger by this day’s work.”

Mark spoke with an air of anxious and friendly candour that called for no opposition. Indeed it was plain that more than one of his hearers had similar doubts of their own.

“The wife’s weel eneuch,” said Mirehope. “Ye’ll no kill a tough auld greyhen like that wi’ a raxed thumb or brunt taes.”

“I hope you’re richt, neighbour,” said Mark. “But if she suld dee, what will ye say to the Shirra — and what to the Court o’ Justiciar? Ye’ve taken doun frae her mouth a long screed o’ crimes, but I’m of the minister’s opinion, that they’re what ony distrackit body wad admit that wasna verra strong in the intellectuals and fand her paiks [punishment] ower sair for her. Lord bless me, but they’re maist o’ them owercomes I heard at my grannie’s knee. I counsel ye in all friendliness to let the minister do his best to keep her in life, or it sticks in my mind that Woodilee will mak’ an ill showing when the King’s judges redd up the business.”

Chasehope angrily dissented, but he had few supporters. Most of the others wore an anxious air.

“I come to the matter of the pricker.” Mark’s homely wheedling tones were like those of a packman in an ale-house kitchen. “I ken nocht about him, but I canna say I like the looks o’ him. I doubt if I was strapped up by the thumbs and had yon luntin’ een glowering at me I wad speak wi’ strange tongues mysel’. It’s no that difficult for a pawky body to gar a weaker vessel obey his will. . . . Get up off that barry,” he said sharply. “Stand ayont the licht till I have a look at ye.”

The words came out like a crack of a whip-lash. The atmosphere of the place had suddenly changed, the woman’s mutterings had ceased, and, as David stood back from the lantern, he saw that Mark had moved forward and was beside the pricker, a yard from him, with the light between them, and the faces of both in full view of the rest. The one shambled to his feet and set his hand to his head as if to avert a blow, while the other, his dark face like a thundercloud, stood menacingly over against him.

“Look at me,” Mark cried. “Look me in the een, if there’s that muckle smeddum in your breast.”

The eyes of the pricker were like small dark points in his dead~white eyeballs.

“Ye’re one Kincaid, but ye’ve gone by mony names. Ye’ve been a dominie and a stickit minister, a thief and a thief-taker, a spy and a witch-finder, and ye’d fain be a warlock if the Deil thocht your soul worth half a bodle. . . . Turn your een to the licht, and keep them there. . . . Answer me ere the Pit opens for ye. Was there ever a word in your mouth that wasna as false as hell? Say ‘I am a liar, like my father the Devil afore me.’”

“I am a liar,” the man croaked.

Mark stretched out one hand and passed it over the pricker’s brow.

“What’s aneath here?” he asked. “Honest banes? Na, na, rottenness like peat.” To the horrified spectators he seemed to pass his hand backwards and forwards through the man’s head, as if a knife had gone through a pat of butter.

“What’s in your een?” he cried, leaning forward. “I see the fires of hell and the worm that dieth not. God! the bleeze o’ them is keekin’ through!”

For a moment it seemed to all that a ruddy glow of flame leaped to the roof, and Daft Gibbie in his agitation fell from his seat and rushed to the door. The idiot flung it open and screamed beyond Reiverslaw to the waiting crowd, “Come inbye, every soul o’ ye. The pricker that tormented puir Bessie is getting his paiks, and Glee’d Mark is drawin’ hell fire out o’ him. Come inbye and see the bonny sicht.”

Reiverslaw and a dozen others entered the granary; the door remained half open and the night wind swept up the dust and chaff of the floor and made the red light seem a monstrous wavering cloud that hung like an infernal aureole over the wretched man.

Mark had him by the shoulder. “And what’s this?” he cried, tearing his shirt aside and showing his bare throat. “As I live by bread, it’s a Deil’s pap!” Certainly to the audience it seemed that above the breast grew a small black teat.

The creature was in an extremity of terror. Fear had so drained the blood from his eyeballs that the pupils seemed to burn with an uncanny brightness, even after the red had gone out of the light.

“There’s nae bull’s pizzle needit to make this wauf [feeble] body confess.” Mark’s iron grip was still on his shoulder. “If ony neighbour has ony misdeed in his mind, I’ll warrant to wring it oot o’ the pricker as glib as a bairn’s schule-lesson. I’ll mak’ him own to the Black Mass in the kirk on Hallowe’en. . . . There’s nane speaks? Weel, we’ll leave the dott’rel to his ain conscience.”

He relaxed his grip, and the man dropped gibbering and half~senseless on the floor.

“There’s your bonny pricker,” said Mark to Chasehope. “There’s your chosen instrument for getting truth out o’ auld wives. Do as you like wi’ him, but I counsel ye to get him furth o’ the parish if he be a friend o’ yours, or the folk will hae him in the deepest hole in Woodilee burn.”

Chasehope, white and stammering, found himself deserted by his allies, but he still showed fight.

“I protest,” he cried. “I kenna what hellish tricks ye’ve played on a worthy man —”

“Just the same tricks as he played on the auld wife — a wee bit o’ speirin’.”

“It’s no my blame,” said Chasehope, changing his ground, “if I have leaned on a broken reed. The man was sent here by folk that vouched for his worth. And nevertheless, whatever the weakness o’ the instrument, the Lord has wrocht through him to produce a confession —”

“Ay. Just so,” said Mark dryly. “But what kind o’ instrument is yon to procure the truth? Will ye get caller water out o’ a foul pipe?”

“The Lord works —” Chasehope began, but Mark broke in on him. His dark mocking face, in which the squint of the left eye was now most noticeable and formidable, was thrust close to the other’s.

“See here, my bonny man. — Ye can get ony mortal daftness out o’ man or woman if ye first put fear on them. Ye’ve seen the auld wife and ye’ve seen the pricker. Do YOU come forrit forenent the licht. Ye’re a buirdly chiel, and weel spoken o’ for canniness. Ye can keep your thumbs unraxed and your hide unscorched for me, but by the God abune us I’ll warrant that in ten minutes by the knock I’ll hae ye confessin’ fauts that will keep the haill parish waukrife till Yule. . . . Will ye thole the trial?”

The big man shrank back. “Na, na. I kenna what spell the Deil has gien ye, but ye’ll no lay it on me.”

“So muckle the better for yoursel’.” Mark turned to the others. “Ye’ve a’ seen, neighbours, that my spell, as he ca’s it, was nae mair than just an honest speirin’. I’m loth to think that this clachan should suffer for what has been done this day, so the sooner we get the wife to bed and weel-tended the better for us a’.”

“She shall go to the manse at once,” said David. He had been examining the tortured woman, who had passed into unconsciousness, and it seemed to him that her heart beat very faintly.

“That will be wisest, no doubt,” said Mark, but at this point Chasehope found support in his protest. Mirehope, Nether Fennan, and the miller exchanged anxious looks.

“Take her to Alison Geddie,” they cried. “She has a toom [empty] bed, and it’s near by.”

“She will go to my own house,” said David, “and be nursed by my own hand. I trust no man or woman of you after to-day’s devilry.”

The place had filled up, and it seemed to him that the better part of the parish were now onlookers. It was clear that a considerable number were on Chasehope’s side, for the mention of the manse had wakened a curious disquiet in many faces. David solved the problem by dragging out from the back of the granary a wooden sledge used for drawing peats. He covered it with straw and laid the woman on it.

“Reiverslaw!” he cried. “You take the one end and I’ll take the other.”

The farmer advanced, and for a second it looked as if he might be prevented by force. He turned fierce eyes on the crowd. “Ay, sir. I’ll dae your bidding. . . . And if ony man lifts his hand to prevent me, he’ll get a sarkfu’ o’ broken banes.”

The strange cortège moved out into the darkness, without opposition. It may have been the honest feeling of the majority that let it go; it may have been the truculent Reiverslaw, or David with his white face and the sword bobbing at his belt: but most likely it was the fact that Mark Riddel walked by the minister’s side.

Bessie Todd died just before morning. Isobel received her old gossip with tears and lamentations, laid her in the best bed, washed and salved her wounds, and strove to revive her with cordials. But the trial had been too hard for a frail woman far down in the vale of years. David watched all night by her bedside, and though at the end she became conscious, her mind was hopelessly unhinged, and she babbled nonsense and scraps of childish rhymes. If he could not pray with her, he prayed beside her, pleading passionately for the departing soul.

As Isobel straightened the body and closed the eyes, she asked anxiously if there had been any space given for repentance.

David shook his head.

“Puir thing, she got the Devil’s fee and bountith, and muckle guid it did her. Let’s hope, sir, that afore her mind left her she had grace given her to renounce him and creep to the Mercy Seat. . . . We’ll gar some folks in Woodilee look gash [ghastly] for this. There was a time, Mr. David, when I wad have held ye back, but my word now is Gang forrit, till ye rive this parish wi’ the fear o’ God, and sinners we ken o’ will howl on their knees for as quiet a death-bed as Bessie’s.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50